By BARRINGTON A. MORRISON
The condition at the mission school established in Buxton by the Reverend King for Black students was dissimilar from those existing in the United States. The Buxton mission school was well known as a model of academic excellence and many White parents in the neighbourhood preferred it to the local common school for Whites Only which was finally forced to close.
“Here (Buxton Mission School) the instruction imparted to the coloured children was of such a superior nature that White children of the district were transferring to the colored school and were sitting side by side with the Blacks; while the more advanced colored pupils were, even in those early days, studying Latin.” (Tanser, 1939, p. 22).
With the integration of White students the Buxton mission school became one of the first integrated schools of its kind in North America. The study of Latin in 1850 was followed a year later with the introduction of Greek. This foundational knowledge of the classics was designed to prepare students for entrance into the University of Toronto and Knox Presbyterian College to serve as future leaders and ministers in their community.
According to the record of the first graduating class at Buxton mission school in 1856, a group of six young Black men graduated with extraordinary academic achievements and were ready for college. The academic achievement of the young Black men at Buxton was enough to debunk forever the myth of racial superiority. For example, Alfred Lafferty left Toronto to attend the new school in Buxton, Kent County and was one of the Reverend King’s most outstanding students. He graduated summa cum laude and won a scholarship to Upper Canada College in the spring of 1853. (Dawson, 2007, p. 36-37).
In his last two years at Upper Canada College, Lafferty studied German, and in 1859, he was vice-president of the College Debating Society. He graduated with honours, winning two of the college’s four major awards: “His Excellency the Governor General’s Prize and the Mathematical Prize. His name is inscribed on the honour roll in the Laidlaw Hall at the ‘new’ 1891 Upper Canada College at the north end of the city on Avenue Road.” (Ibid, p. 37). Lafferty went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in 1863 and a Master’s degree in 1867 at the University College. He later became Headmaster of the Richmond Hill County Grammar school in 1866.
A report by Samuel Gridley Howe for the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission, which visited Toronto on a fact-finding mission established by President Abraham Lincoln to find out what government measures would be necessary to allow emancipated slaves to become self-sufficient, quoted the President of the University College, Dr. John McCaul:
“I can give you my own experience in regard to the capacity of Blacks. We had a mulatto here who took the ‘double first’ in both classics and mathematics. He has very great ability. There are few Whites who can do what he did… I do not think there have been more than three instances in which it has been done since the University was opened twenty years ago. Lafferty is the young man’s name. His father was a man of very humble capacity, and, I think, a full Black… I do not hesitate to say, in regard to Mr. Lafferty, that he is equal to any White man…far superior to the average of them. It was a great subject of astonishment to some of our Kentucky friends, who came over here last year in October, when they saw this mulatto get the first prize for Greek verse which he had to recite; and he was the crack man of the day, all the others listening to him with great pleasure.” (Ibid; p. 38).
It would not have been a “great subject of astonishment” to the men from Kentucky if they knew that Lafferty’s African ancestors were the very initiators of the so-called “Western Civilization” from which they profited and developed a national identity. For example: Pythagorean mathematical theorem; the theory of the four elements of Thales; Epicurean materialism; Platonic idealism; Judaism, Islam, mathematics, modern science and engineering are all rooted in Egyptian Cosmogony (Diop, 1974, p. X1V).
The scope of African-American firsts in agriculture and medicine, science and engineering, mathematics and literature demonstrates the path-making achievements over a time period of over 300 years. For instance, while Lafferty was making scholarly history at Buxton and Upper Canada College, his compatriots in the United States were engaged in ground-breaking work in Science and Engineering. Lewis Howard Latimer (1848-1928), son of a runaway slave, became an electrical engineer and worked for Thomas Alva Edison, where Latimer invented the fine carbon wire that went into the development of the incandescent light bulb. (It is instructive to mention here for the record, that Thomas Edison was not the inventor of the light bulb, he was working on the contraption at the same time as two Canadians, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans, who patented the bulb in 1875. Edison bought the rights to their patent and unveiled the contraption in 1879). Lewis Latimer also did the technical drawings for the patent of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.
Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894), son of a slave mother and the master of the plantation, was an engineer who patented two sugar refining processes in 1843 and 1846 which revolutionized the sugar industry. The multiple effect evaporator pan was the basis of developing a cheaper, better, automated process for crystallizing sugar. (This process is basic to the manufacturing of condensed milk, soap, gelatin, glue, and the recovery of wastes in distilleries and paper factories.) Winslow, 1984 (p. 4-9), Van Sertima, 1983 (p. 222).
These “first” achievements are of particular significance because they relate to the narratives of Black pioneers – those who have accomplished things that no one else had done before.